Runway postdocs innovate startups targeting COVID-19

In mid-March, Rebecca Brachman, a postdoctoral fellow in the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech’s Runway Startup Postdoc Program, was thinking about big-picture ways to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. She called another fellow in the program, Server Ertem, Ph.D. ’09, to brainstorm.

In their 15-minute conversation, the two realized that a cancer detection tool under development by Ertem’s company could be adapted to the new coronavirus. Now they’re working with hospitals in New York City and companies around the world to develop a rapid, inexpensive and accurate test for coronavirus immunity that could help individuals and communities determine who might safely rejoin the workforce or care for the sick.

A virtual presentation of a startup seeking to develop a test for coronavirus antibodies, created by students in the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech’s Runway Startup Postdoc Program.

“We realized that what we’ve already been developing on cancer actually had a direct correlation to how the COVID-19 virus protects itself, and that’s how we’ve realized that we already have the tools and why we can deploy so fast,” said Ertem, CEO of Katena Oncology, a biotech startup. “We have extensive clinical partners, and we’re working with them to validate our test as fast as possible.”

Ertem and Brachman, co-founder and director of the Social Outcomes Initiative (SoGo), were among the presenters at an April 1 virtual demonstration of Runway program projects aimed at helping society cope with the global coronavirus pandemic. An online audience of around 50 alumni, entrepreneurs and others also heard from Runway Startup Postdoc Param Kulkarni, CEO of AwareHealth, an AI-based mental health app to help medical professionals who are treating coronavirus patients; and Neuralpositive, which delivers hyper-personalized [music] playlists designed to have therapeutic effects.

“They saw the challenge of COVID-19 and they just dove into it,” said Fernando Gómez-Baquero, director of Runway. “So they put their minds, their thoughts and their companies to work on it.”

The Runway program provides one or two years of academic and business mentorship, and funding for recent Ph.D.s with promising business ideas that need time and guidance to develop. Since 2014, Runway participants have created 28 startups – 22 of which are still in operation and two exits – employing 189 people and raising nearly $100 million in funding. “We bring the best postdocs in the world [here] and help them create companies and make an impact beyond themselves and academia,” Gómez-Baquero said.

Runway fellow Yasmine Van Wilt, co-founder and co-CEO of Neuralpositive, gave her presentation with long pauses for coughs and breaths because she herself is battling COVID-19.

“I acquired mine probably from patients while at the hospital doing this research,” said Van Wilt, who works on therapeutics combining insights from neuroscience, neurobiology, epidemiology and music with patients in pulmonary distress. “We’ve also lost family members, in our team, over the last few days. So we’re coming together and this fight is personal for us.”

While numerous research teams are racing to develop quick tests to detect who has COVID-19, as of March 31 no one had approached the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about a test for immunity, Server and Brachman said during their presentation.

Such a test – especially if it could be cheaply made and easily used – could have important implications for reopening society and boosting a struggling economy. It could also help determine which health care professionals could safely administer to the sick, or when it’s safe for a family member to take care of a relative with the virus, they said.

“We’re looking at numbers in the millions here. So that’s extremely important, especially in a city like New York, if you can get one out of eight people back in the workforce,” said Brachman, who has a doctorate in neuroscience. “We need to know who has individual immunity, so they are protected if they are on the front lines. And then we also need to know at some point when we have herd immunity, which will allow us to more generally open up these cities and states because we can be more confident that we won’t see another big spike in infections.”

One of the Runway program’s strengths is bringing together thinkers from different backgrounds and with different expertise to brainstorm solutions together, said Ron Brachman, director of the Jacobs Institute and professor of computer science.

“Because of this pandemic situation in which we find ourselves, we’re innovating in some really interesting ways,” he told the virtual audience. “Jacobs and the Runway program really push the envelope around radical experimentation at the intersection of education, research and entrepreneurship.”

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Lindsey Knewstub